We should be watching

New Statesman political editor Martin Bright highlights violence that has claimed dozens of lives in

Over recent weeks, dozens of Bangladeshis have died in clashes between opposing political factions in advance of elections planned for early 2007. But it is as if no one in Britain has noticed.

The riots were sparked by the appointment of a caretaker government (a constitutional requirement in the 90 days running up to an election). For the past five years, the country has been ruled by a coalition of the Bangladesh National Party and its allies on the religious right: Jamaat-i-Islami and Islami Oikya Jote.

But an opposition alliance of 14 parties led by the secularist Bengali party, the Awami League, was deeply unhappy that Iajuddin Ahmed, a known BNP supporter, had appointed himself as head of this interim administration. The Awami League has vowed to call its supporters on to the streets again if President Ahmed cannot prove his neutrality.

The British media's lack of interest is the more surprising given the news this month of a 62,000 increase in the numbers of Bangladeshi immigrants in London since 1997. Stalwart Bangladesh expert Jeremy Seabrook, writing in the Guardian, has been a lone voice.

The origins of the latest crisis go back to Bangladesh's struggle for independence from Pakistan, which it won in 1971 at a cost of some million Bangladeshi lives. The bitterness of that conflict is written into today's political alignments. The Islamist parties, now part of the government, fought on the Pakistani side during Bangladesh's war of independence and many leading figures of Jamaat-i-Islami are accused by their opponents of war crimes during that period.

In this sense, every Bangladeshi election is a fight for the country's soul. On the one side stand those who believe in an essentially secular Bengali identity; on the other are those who want the country defined as a Muslim state, much as Pakistan is.

Why should we be concerned? On the 14 November, senior Bangladeshi politicians, journalists and human-rights activists met in London under the aegis of the centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange. They felt it essential to bring discussion of the growing tension in their country to the heart of Whitehall as the elections grow closer.

It shouldn't really be necessary to ask why this particular struggle for political control is important to Britain. For one thing, the political crisis matters deeply to hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis in the UK, many of whom sit glued to the satellite channel Bangla TV every evening for news that British television is ignoring.

And, at the same time, the secular versus Islamist battle is playing itself out in the diaspora. As in Bangladesh, the Islamists have the upper hand, for the time being. The new head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, is a Bangladeshi Islamist sympathetic to Jamaat-i-Islami. East London Mosque, where he is chairman, acts as a focus for activities of the party in Britain and often hosts its leading politicians.

Events in Bangladesh could have a resonance in Britain that the government would be foolish to ignore.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Missing presumed tortured